Kenan Avsar is grateful to open a new chapter in life. Photo credit: Sevval Kokten

At age 50, Turkish-born Kenan Avsar graduated from Algonquin College, finding success in Canada after fleeing Sri Lanka due to threats from Turkish authorities. “We were hearing about people being kidnapped by Turkish forces and sent back to Turkey in the region; it was obvious the local Sri Lankan authorities were pressured by Turkish authorities to deport us,” Avsar said. “We knew we weren’t safe there anymore.”

Born in Ardahan and raised in Izmir, Turkey, Avsar graduated from Akdeniz University with a Bachelor of Civil Engineering in 1992. It was during his university years that he met members of the Gulen Movement—a group of people from different ethnic backgrounds, named after U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fetullah Gulen, who promotes altruism, education, modesty, interfaith, and intercultural dialogue.

“During my university years, I understood the importance and responsibility that a teacher holds in educating the youth,” Avsar said. “That is why I decided to become a math and geometry teacher and teach in various parts of Turkey.” He did so for about six years. Later, he continued his career working as an administrator in schools run by the Gulen movement.

In 2012, Avsar volunteered to go to Sri Lanka with his family, where he became the chairman of three Turkish schools (Learnium International Schools). Religious beliefs of being rewarded for their work in the afterlife made Avsar and many others leave everything behind and migrate from one place to another to help the cause. “It was tough at first. Imagine you’re travelling to a whole new country without knowing their language, culture, and traditions. Imagine leaving all your loved ones behind,” Avsar said. “But on the bright side, we knew we weren’t alone and that we had friends who came before us to help if need be.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started a “witch hunt” of Gulen followers, labelling them as a terrorist organization after the corruption investigation of December 2013, which involved the president, his family members, and his inner circle.

In 2016, President Erdogan held Gulen and his followers responsible for the failed coup attempt. Turkish officials implemented many restrictions in and throughout the country, including coming into agreement with their close allied nations to shut down Gulen Schools and deport the Turkish followers to Turkey.

In 2017, Sri Lankan authorities started revoking Gulen followers’ employment visas. Avsar and many other teachers and administrators started searching for a safer place to go to. “We bonded and made great friendships and ties with the locals there. We never wanted to leave Sri Lanka,” Avsar recalled. “But in small countries, unfortunately, it’s easy for people to bypass the laws by giving money to the authorities. If we stayed, they would’ve deported us to Turkey, and I would have ended up in a jail cell immediately even though I was innocent.”

On June 22, 2017, Avsar, his wife and two children found refuge in Canada. For a while, he worked as an Uber driver to support his family and pay for English Second Language courses at Algonquin College to improve his English. Later, he applied for the construction engineering technician program. He graduated this year. “I wanted to challenge myself and prove that age did not have any limitations in learning new things,” Avsar said. “I was a Turkish immigrant who wanted to inspire people and show them that if I could do it, so could they.”